What is a “Gospel” Anyway? A Few Thoughts on Gospel Genre and Why it Matters

Meredith Kline, recognizing the unequivocal Old Testament backdrop, has argued that the Gospels are best understood as covenant documents.

So, here’s the big pay off. To read the Gospels as covenant documents keeps the larger redemptive-historical narrative of the Bible front and center, allows us to see how the whole of Scripture is unified around the person and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, and reminds us what makes the canonical gospels distinctive from the other “gospels” in the ancient world.

 

When it comes to reading (and interpreting ) the Gospels, one of the fundamental questions pertains to the kind of document we are reading.  What exactly is a “Gospel”?  And did the earliest readers of these books know what they were reading?

Such questions may seem pedantic to the average reader, but they matter more than we think.  Right interpretation is built on (among other things) correctly assessing the literary genre.  We don’t read parables like historical narrative, nor do we read poetry (Psalms) like apocalyptic literature.

An example of confusion over “genre” in our modern world (though in a different medium) pertains to the growing practice of making internet ads look like internet content.  In other words, some companies are positioning their ads to look like a news story.

This is quite controversial for an obvious reason: people read and interpret ads differently than news. People expect one thing from ads, and expect something very different from news.  One is viewed as propaganda, the other is viewed as fact (though that distinction itself is subject to dispute today).

Options on the Table

So, then, what is a Gospel? Suggestions have ranged all over the map, including the Gospels as oral folk literature, as a summary of the early Christian kerygma, as accounts of a “divine man” (or aretalogy), and beyond.

But, most popular today is the view that our gospels are a form of Greco-Roman biography, or “lives” (bioi), similar to the accounts of Plutarch, Suetonius, or Xenophon. To be sure, there is much to commend this view.  On the surface, our gospels share a certain family resemblance with the bios genre, including a similar length, focus on a single protagonist, extra attention to the protagonist’s final days, and various types of content such as sayings, stories, and great deeds.

However, if we look at the Gospels merely as bios we miss one of their most salient features, namely the manner in which their story connects to, and even continues, the story of the Hebrew Scriptures.

If we are searching for a literary model readily available for our Gospel authors—three of whom were Jews—then we might ask why we would look to the broader Greco-Roman context when “much closer to hand is the Hebrew Bible” (Reading the Gospels Wisely, 26).

Or, as Loveday Alexander has argued, “It is to the biblical tradition, surely, that we should look for the origins of the ‘religious intensity’ of the gospel narratives and their rich ideological intertextuality with the biblical themes of covenant, kingdom, prophecy, and promise—all features hard to parallel in Greek biography” (“What is a Gospel,” 27-28).

So, while our gospels may be similar to Greco-Roman biography in terms of structure, they are indebted to the Old Testament in terms of their narrative.  And when we consider the narrative features of the four gospels, it quickly becomes clear that they are stories of God’s eschatological, redemptive, covenant-fulfilling, activity through the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

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